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Singing Backup For 'Preacher's Wife' Georgia Mass Choir Is Voice Of Authenticity hide

During the filming of A League of Their Own in 1991, producer Robert Greenhut was working out in a Chicago gym when he got a jolt from a local radio station. It came in the form of a gospel song called Hold On, Help Is On the Way, written by the Rev. Kenneth Paden and performed by the Georgia Mass Choir. "It just made the blood go to my face," Greenhut remembers. "It was one of the best gospel songs that I had heard in a long time." Greenhut vowed to get it into one of his films.

He and director Penny Marshall could find no place for Hold On in A League of Their Own.

But the story wasn't over.

Four years later, Greenhut and Marshall teamed up again for The Preacher's Wife, a Christmas '96 film starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance. This time, the filmmakers not only used Hold On but also rerecorded the choir performing it, with Houston singing lead.

The filmmakers went even further, casting dozens of Georgia Mass Choir members as Houston's smaller choir in the movie, which features several of the choir's signature songs.

"There was great jubilation among the choir leaders," says the Rev. Milton Biggham, founder and director of the Georgia Mass Choir and gospel music consultant on the film. "This is the first time in the history of gospel music that a real choir was used to such an extent in a major film."

Greenhut and Marshall auditioned several New York and New Jersey choirs because the film was being shot in those states. But they could not find a group with the same look and sound as the Georgia Mass Choir.

"They were charismatic," Greenhut says. "They just exuded a community spirit. I don't mean just the songs. We spent a day with them and hung out with them, and it was a good, genuine, loose-feeling bunch."

In Marshall's words, when the choir sang, "we could see joy on their faces."

It's been that way since 1983, when Biggham, a Georgia native who now lives in Newark, N.J., founded the Georgia Mass Choir with 110 singers from Atlanta, Augusta, Macon, Savannah, Thomasville and other cities and towns. Each month's rehearsal is in a different part of Georgia. The group has recorded eight albums, all of them gospel chart hits.

The spirit they brought to the set was highly catching. When Houston and the choir sang together for opening and closing scenes, crew members and extras found themselves stomping their feet. The climactic performance turned into a full-blown gospel jam that didn't stop when Marshall yelled "Cut!"

Now the choir members are bracing for wider renown. They appeared with Houston last month on NBC's Saturday Night Live and on ABC's Good Morning America.

They can be heard on six tracks on The Preacher's Wife soundtrack album (Arista) and have just released The Georgia Mass Choir: Greatest Hits (Savoy/Malaco Records).

"The publicity that the Georgia Mass Choir is getting from this movie will help the choir's sales," Biggham says. "But we feel that we are making waves, opening doors for gospel music itself. And that makes it even more wonderful."

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